In English football, which club has the fourth highest total of major honors? What would your answer be? Most would assume Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal to take the top three positions and they would be correct. But who has the fourth highest? Chelsea? The Blues have picked up the majority of their trophy haul in recent years. How about Manchester City? Despite their recent surge, City have only had brief times of sustained success.
The club with the fourth highest total is Aston Villa. Aside from being one of the founding members of the Premier League, the Villans have won seven First Division Championships, seven FA Cups, and they are one of only five English teams to win the European Cup (1981-82). Of course, the majority of these titles were won under leadership of George Ramsey from 1884-1926. So Villa’s history is easily dismissed by some supporters.
When Aston Villa is mentioned to followers of the Premier League, more than likely the first thought is of a club with mid-table qualities who has dangled dangerously close to relegation the past few seasons. A club who’s success is attributed to the health and form of their young Belgian striker, Christian Benteke.
Unless they are playing one of the “bigger” English clubs, Villa’s results are an afterthought. During a recent exchange on an open thread, I commented on my disappointment in the match between Hull City and Aston Villa. The match ended in a dull 0-0 draw. Another person replied, “You should have known better than expect excitement from that match.”
Well just a few seasons ago, during a three year span from 2007-2010, Aston Villa consistently finished in sixth place in the Premier League. In 2009-10, the Villans were only six points behind the final Champions League spot. And in 2007-08, they missed out on a UEFA Cup position on the final day of the season.
Of course, you’re only as good as your last game. And the past few years, Aston Villa have been too close to the relegation zone for their supporters’ likings.
The success from 2007-10 was largely due to the efforts of former manager, Martin O’Neill. But O’Neill resigned from his position in August 2010 over a dispute with the club regarding transfer funds. The timing was particularly poor for Aston Villa with the season just around the corner. Gérard Houllier was hired but only lasted one season and the club dropped to ninth in the league.
Then in a controversial decision, the club hired Alex McLeish in June 2011. Just months before, McLeish led his club into relegation and followed that up by quitting his position. If that weren’t bad enough for Villa supporters, the club McLeish had previously managed was their local rivals, Birmingham City.
McLeish’s hiring was met with loud and visible displeasure from Aston Villa fans. McLeish never won over the home supporters and the season ended badly as Villa dropped to sixteenth place in the Premiership.
As if the 2011-12 season weren’t bad enough, during March of that season it was announced that fan favorite Stiliyan Petrov had been diagnosed with acute leukaemia. Petrov took leave from the club before returning to watch from the stands during a home match against Chelsea. He was greeted with a tremendous show of appreciation by Villa supporters as they stood and applauded him for a full minute during the 19th minute of the match (Petrov wore No19 on his shirt).
The fans have continued to carry on this tradition. Although in August 2013, Petrov asked for Villa fans to “move on”. Their Bulgarian star was quoted as saying, “The fans have shown me so much love, support and respect and I will hold this forever in my heart but we all have to move on and I have no problem with this. I know they will always be beside me, they’re with me and I’m in their thoughts. That’s a precious and very humbling thing.”
In 2012, Paul Lambert was hired after a successful term as manager at Norwich City. As a player, Lambert had been a member of the Scottish National team with professional stints at Motherwell, Celtic, and Borussia Dortmund. His ascent as a manager began during his time with Norwich City as he directed the club from League One promotion to Premier League promotion in two successive years. Eventually, Lambert left Carrow Road for Villa Park after guiding the Canaries through the 2011-12 Premier League season.
The start of the 2012-13 season wasn’t the best for Lambert and Aston Villa. They finished the month of August with no points, but slightly improved their production in September. However, they only mustered 19 points in the league from November through February.
The most memorable period during that time (and not in a good way) was in December, as Aston Villa suffered an 8-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge to Chelsea, followed by successive home defeats to Tottenham and fellow relegation strugglers Wigan by scores of 4-0 and 3-0. The club was firmly engulfed in the relegation battle.
The media began to circulate stories of Lambert’s eminent firing. Questions were being asked of his decision to play such a young, inexperienced team in the Premier League. The poor form of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Lambert’s hesitancy to use striker Darren Bent were also contributing factors. Agbonlahor looked slow and disinterested, while Bent had been made captain prior to the start of the season only to have that title removed in September just before a league win against Manchester City.
The calls for Lambert’s head continued in January and February with the club sitting on 24 points after 27 matches. But Aston Villa’s ownership broke the trend followed by the majority of Premier League clubs and stuck with their manager and his faith in youth. The trend ended up paying off as the club took 17 points over the next 11 matches to finish in fifteenth place in the league.
The current Villa side is still full of youth and excitement. One thing you can count on when you watch Aston Villa is goals (aside from their most recent match against Hull City). Prior to their last match, the Villans had conceded goals in 26 straight matches. Not a great statistic for Aston Villa supporters or for Villa keeper Brad Guzan who happens to be one of the best shot stoppers in the top flight. But for the neutral football fan, you can expect to see goals when you tune in to watch a Villa match.
The other thing you can expect to see is one of the better counter attacking teams (arguably the best) in the Premier League. It’s something that managers from top to bottom of the league have had to adjust to while preparing to face Aston Villa.
The truth is, Villa don’t have a squad of players who can win the possession battle. But they do have a team which is capable of defending in numbers, drawing their opponents in, then attacking the gaps which are left open by them. Then, the Villans are able to capitalize on the energetic attributes of their full-backs and attacking midfielders.
Antonio Luna and Matthew Lowton are two enterprising full-backs who aren’t shy of going forward. Even though the whole of Villa’s back four is inexperienced, it is balanced by a young hardworking midfield. Fabian Delph and Karim El-Ahmadi are hard-tackling players, while Ashley Westwood provides some cover with his steady displays.
But the Aston Villa attack is most recognizable by the efforts of Christian Benteke, Gabby Agbonlahor, and the feisty Andreas Weimann. Benteke is recognized throughout the league for being the strong pivot point of Villa’s attack (and for his goal scoring), but the resurgence of Agbonlahor has been key to Villa’s success. The player has shown a new determination as well as providing solid leadership.
Agbonlahor rose through the youth ranks at Aston Villa and (despite short loan terms) has spent the entirety of his career at the club. Although he is only 26 years old, Agbonlahor has over eight years of Premier League experience. His maturity has been invaluable to Villa’s young players.
Aston Villa opened the 2013-14 season by sending Arsenal to a 3-1 defeat at the Emirates. They followed that performance with one-goal losses to Chelsea (a match marred by controversy), Liverpool, and Newcastle United. They then beat Norwich City (1-0) before shocking the experts and beating Manchester City at Villa Park, 3-2. A match that saw Manchester City dominate possession, only to see Villa score three times with only four shots on goal.
Just before the international break, Villa drew with Hull City. They are currently in tenth place, sitting on ten points after seven matches. Every game (except the Hull City draw) has been decided by one goal. If you are a “neutral” Premier League viewer, you will have guaranteed entertainment while watching an Aston Villa match. They are one of the oldest clubs in English football with a rich history. And they look to be regaining their footing on the top flight landscape.